Every student has the right to learn in a school that is safe and equitable. Conflicts arise daily in schools, and historically schools have used a zero-tolerance approach to discipline students.
Zero tolerance results in automatic detention, suspension or expulsion for misbehavior , all practices that exclude students from school. On the surface, it may seem like zero-tolerance approaches are efficient and effective, but more than 20 years of research has shown the opposite. Violence has not disappeared from schools with zero-tolerance policies, nor have these policies led to less school disruption.
Schools with high rates of suspension and expulsion report lower, not higher, grades school-wide. And the use of exclusionary discipline increases the chance that youths will not graduate and instead may end up in the juvenile justice system, a process called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Schools across the country, including Tucson Unified School District, are rethinking the way they discipline students. Instead of zero tolerance, schools are turning to restorative justice. Last December, a U.S. Senate hearing was called to discuss ways to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and restorative-justice practices were identified as a promising strategy.
Restorative-justice practices are positive approaches to school discipline that keep students in school and learning. In essence, they teach students to resolve conflict and repair any potential harm caused by their behavior. Some restorative-justice practices include listening circles, formal conferences with school staff and the students in conflict, and teen courts where peers are involved in conflict resolution.
These practices have profound effects for school climate and students’ lives. For example, after the implementation of restorative justice in Cole Middle School, a pilot location for restorative justice in Oakland, Calif., the number of suspended students dropped by 20 percent, repeat suspensions dropped by 40 percent and the school lost considerably less money from daily attendance funding.
Prior to restorative justice, the school lost nearly $10,000 in 2007 from the loss of student attendance. One year later, it only lost $262, and test scores went up, too.
Savvy schools across the country are taking a stand against zero-tolerance policies and are moving toward restorative practices. A recent New York Times story reported that these practices help change lives but are not a “quick fix,” as changing a culture takes time and training. Schools that have been successful in implementing restorative justice have used a whole community approach. Oakland’s school district teams with a local nonprofit, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, to provide eight full-time restorative-justice coordinators to schools. In Portland, Ore., parents have taken the lead to facilitate restorative listening circles in their school districts.
TUSD is joining the ranks of those savvy schools that are on board with restorative justice. We all want schools where students have an equal chance to learn. We have enough evidence to know that zero-tolerance doesn’t work.
We encourage parents and community members to take notice and responsibility for the education of our children. With the demands on teachers today, implementing any new program will take time and energy. Systemic change isn’t easy, but it is possible, and it’s happening. Let’s give it a chance.